Often Laura Woods will cycle to work on a Boris Bike. The host of the talkSPORT Breakfast show can feel like she has London to herself at 4am.
‘Along the Embankment the sun starts to come up and the sky is pink and the clouds are speckled,’ Woods says, smiling. ‘It’s incredible. It can feel like just me and London alone. An hour of peace that I really cherish.’
Woods has hosted the station’s flagship show for exactly a year. This month she was voted Sports Presenter of the Year by the Sports Journalists’ Association, beating a shortlist that included industry titans Gary Lineker and Mark Chapman. It is a remarkable achievement but the last year has not been an easy ride. Far from it.
Laura Woods has spoken to Sportsmail about the previous year which has had highs and lows
Woods was voted Sports Presenter of the Year by the Sports Journalism Association this month
Taking over from the show’s established host Alan Brazil Monday to Wednesday, the 33-year-old found herself alone in a studio with no live sport to talk about. At home, she felt just as isolated as the nation’s lockdown kicked in. As her mental health crashed, those bike rides were not just about the pretty views.
‘It was how I started to figure things out,’ she tells Sportsmail. ‘I had a torrid time at the start and was really struggling. There was this wave of pressure taking over from Alan. I felt I was ruining it for the audience.
‘It was a weird war with my own emotions. I loved having the show and wanted to do a really good job. But I knew what the audience were feeling because I was feeling it too. So the timing couldn’t have been worse. Living on my own was difficult. I needed to come home, have a cuddle or go to the pub, watch TV or something.
‘Instead, my housemate had moved out and it was a small flat with no garden. I felt as though the walls were closing in on me. The show would be four hours of non-stop talk and then I would get home to a closed door and total silence. It was, “What now?”
‘I would go for a walk but feel so aimless. The only access to the outside world was social media and at that time it was not my friend. I just felt this huge weight of negative opinion. I wanted comforts so I was eating loads. I am not a big drinker but I would have three bottles of cider at home.
‘Those were the moments where I thought, “This feels dark”. I couldn’t shake myself out of it.’
She was recognised for her work on TalkSPORT Breakfast every Monday-Wednesday 6-10am
During our 90-minute chat, it is clear why Woods has become an increasingly prominent voice and face on radio and TV. She is also a key part of Sky’s Premier League coverage. There is an honesty and openness about her.
She hides nothing and has much to give. She is a funny and natural communicator.
She says the switch from feeling like a speedway rider stuck at the start gate — her own analogy — to feeling confident enough to enjoy her new status came with the restart of the German Bundesliga last May.
‘It was the first sport to come out of hibernation and never have I loved German football so much,’ she laughs. She also leant heavily on her mum Michelle and colleagues such as executive producer Sarah Collins. She was lifted by messages of support from rivals such as Lineker and BT Sport presenter Jake Humphrey.
‘I have been to Gary for advice a couple of times,’ she reveals. ‘He told me the reaction he had when he took over on the BBC from Des Lynam was negative. And look at him now. It made me realise none of this was personal. Eventually it did turn and when it did I felt like I had been running on sand and now I was back on the road.’
Conversation with Woods is peppered with sporting analogies and that is appropriate. On a long, slow journey to where she is now, she has covered so many of them.
There was no silver spoon for Woods, a girl from Dagenham. No fast-tracking for a university journalism student who wanted to work for newspapers until she realised a rainy week’s work experience on the Croydon Advertiser didn’t compare to a few days behind the scenes at Sky’s Soccer AM.
Aside from TalkSPORT, the 33-year-old is a key part of Sky Sports’ football coverage too
Hearing her talk of early days covering darts, 10-pin bowling, ping pong — ‘It’s not the same as table tennis, the bats are different’ — and speedway is to listen to a story of persistence and at times, it seems, sheer bloody-mindedness.
A gig reporting on golf was taken off her and given to someone else. So was a Friday night show talking about football in a pub. She twice failed screen tests for Sky Sports News.
‘I was dreadful at that, just awful,’ she says. ‘It knocked my confidence for years.’ In the end, radio saved Woods. She loves her TV work and is grateful to those who stuck by her. The fondness with which she still talks about left-field events such as 10-pin’s Weber Cup — ‘It was at the Barnsley Metrodome and they called it the Ryder Cup of Bowling!’ — is clear. She can still remember the competitors’ names and celebrations.
But it was talkSPORT where she really found her voice. ‘I had always loved radio but it’s also the hardest,’ she says. ‘I thought it would be amazing if I could get good at it.
‘When something feels impossible I think back to trying to use the till system when I worked in a pub. I was a terrible waitress but I still think now that if I could master that damn till, I could master anything!
Aside from reporting on football, Woods has covered left-field events such as the eWorld Cup
‘Of course, I was c**p when I started at radio but I started to feel my personality could shine and started to realise I could do it. That was a relief, such a turning point. At that stage I think things could still have gone one way or the other for me.’
Evidence of Woods’ progress sits behind her on a shelf. A gleaming SJA trophy. Previous winners include Chapman, Clare Balding and Jeff Stelling. Woods likes to think it is recognition for everybody at the station.
‘I never thought this could happen to someone like me but it’s not for me,’ she says. ‘It’s for a lot of people at the station who went through an equally difficult time as I did.’
Woods knows the industry still has much to teach her. One of her TV roles is to conduct post-match interviews. ‘That still terrifies me,’ she says. ‘A manager has just lost. He is upset and angry and emotional and there is me poking him on what must feel like a really big bruise.’
She describes herself as ‘socially awkward’. Those who know her say this is not true. Regardless, with an increase in status comes new responsibility, whether she is ready for it or not. Women in the sports media are still forced to play by different rules. The criticism is different. Expectations, too. She stands at the top of the pile now. So is she ready?
‘I do feel pressure to do it right,’ she nods. ‘I have watched women drown in positions in which they haven’t been given support. I have seen what that has done to women’s reputations.
Despite her warm demeanour, Woods says she still gets terrified doing post-match interviews
‘We are all striving for equality but the reaction to a woman on screen or radio is still not equal. A producer once told me that women reporters have higher to fall from.
‘It stuck with me. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you look, the way your voice sounds.
‘I have had it all in tweets and stuff. You are underweight. You are overweight. You have too much make-up. You look tired. Men have to deal with scrutiny, too. I know. But their knowledge is never attacked in the same way.
‘Women have transitioned into some sports such as cricket incredibly well. But what is it about football that people can’t accept something if it’s coming out of a woman’s mouth? Women can be brain surgeons. They can save your life. They can go to the moon. But they can’t give you an opinion about football. It’s bonkers.
‘I am a sensitive person. I can get upset. So I need time for me. But I also try to help when I can. I got a message during lockdown from a girl with an eating disorder on Instagram. I did what I could for her. I listened. But I am not a doctor. There are some wonderful girls on Twitter who I follow. Young journalists who have the balls to put their work out there and they get dogs’ abuse.
‘Racist, sexist, rape threats, death threats. The deepest stuff you could imagine. I mentioned one of them on the show and she got in touch to say thanks. That is when I realised what I say can go a long way. I was naive to that a little. I felt a sense of responsibility then. I owe an amount to other people, not just me.
‘Do I want to tackle important issues on the show? Do I want to show I deserve this award? Do I want to make an impression on young women? Do I want to be a role model? The answer to all of that is yes. I choose to be this.’
As a female, Woods is keen to change people’s perceptions of women within sports journalism
Laura Woods hosts talkSPORT Breakfast alongside Ally McCoist, Monday-Wednesday from 6am-10am. She was voted Sports Presenter of the Year at the SJA Awards.